Editor's Note: The original version of the story did not include the Texas Military Department's response, which has now been added.
A teenage boy at a military school housed inside a former jail in the Texas desert says cadets like him are pitted against each other like The Lord of the Flies while staff members turn a blind eye.
Each incoming class at the Texas Challenge Academy is split into two platoons called “Alpha,” made up of 17- and 18-year-olds and “Bravo” made up of 16- and 17-year-olds. Challenge Academy is a quasi-military high school with programs nationwide offering struggling students an alternative education to earn an expedited diploma or GED, mostly funded by the Department of Defense. The platoons at this West Texas outfit work like simulated gangs. To succeed here means dodging dangerous melees and new foes for almost 18 months to graduate and become law-abiding citizens or future soldiers.
Ten days is all it took for one 17-year-old kid from San Antonio who we’ll call Chris to be shown the door via the emergency room.
Chris was an Alpha who hoped enrolling in the school could be a springboard to one day embark on a career in the Air Force. At the academy, he became a three-digit number, everyday saying “thank you, ma’am” and “thank you, sir,” tidying his bunk bed right after “Reveille” at 4:45 a.m. and mastered the march until 8:45 p.m. when “Taps” lulled everyone to lights out.
Except few slept with fights breaking out nightly.
To hear Chris’s account, this school is a far cry from a safe haven; and seemingly endorses the thug life that Chris and fellow pupils thought they left behind.
“This incident is not representative of the program, itself or the hard work and dedication of our staff and families who work closely with the Challenge Academy,” Lt. Col. Travis Walters, a Texas Military Department spokesman, said. He said members of the National Guard conducted an internal investigation into a “physical altercation [that] took place between two cadets” at the Sheffield campus on July 22 leading to four Challenge cadets being dismissed “for unacceptable behavior.”
It’s unclear how unique Chris’s case is since Lt. Col. Walters wouldn’t confirm if there had been other documented attacks amongst cadets. But he ensured that the program (which rejects applicants for having criminal records and doesn’t admit “court mandated” students) utilizes a “disciplinary processes” to deal with “all minor verbal and physical altercations between cadets.”
Chris’s single mother, who we will call Nancy, had high hopes that the Challenge Academy would change her son’s life. She had struggled as a 54-year-old corrections officer and single mother to help Chris find success in school since 2010 when his father was stabbed to death.
Chris slipped as a student, hopscotching high schools in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, before his family relocated to San Antonio.
That’s why on July 12, Chris—sporting a black tie, white poplin, and black trousers—lugged two duffel bags stuffed with $500 worth of provisions stowed in a charter bus about to pull away from Camp Mabry military base in Austin, Texas.
“It was just so formal and on the up and up,” his mother remembered. “All the parents, we were thinking they were taking them to another military base.”
Once aboard the bus though, Chris and company were hushed into submission.
“They tell us, ‘We’re going to take this long ride. Be quiet. Go to sleep if you like. The longer you talk the more you’re going to get stronger real fast.’”
Their destination wasn’t a military base but Sheffield Boot Camp, a former juvenile lockup.
“Not one time did they say ‘Oh this is taking place in a [former] jail.’”
It had towering hurricane fences that screened infinite rolling hills in the chapped terrain of the Stockton Plateau where grazing goats, mountain lions, scorpions, and rattlesnakes roam.
But the perils beyond the fence paled to the cadets and sergeants sanctioning the kill-or-be-killed conditions.
Chris realized being a volunteer was the exception; many of these kid Rambos were seasoned gangbangers and juvenile delinquents.
At every turn, Challenge Academy pupils tested each other’s street cred by brawling; some dustups swelled into “mini-riots.”
“The first night everybody was all quiet,” Chris said. “But when the lights went out people would start hitting other people… one of the reasons was a lot of the dudes in there kept claiming all these gangs.”
There were kids claiming Bloods, Crips, and other gangs like Chicago-based Gangster Disciples amongst others.
He likened himself and others in the Challenge Academy not as cadets but “inmates.” Also, he learned he was conquering obstacle courses and dodging beefs with actual inmates and delinquents.
One cadet had been ordered by a judge to attend the Challenge Academy after being caught for armed robbery and another decided on the school instead of jail after he was caught stealing credit cards. Other classmates were ordered by administrative judges for being deemed serial truants, which in Texas, playing hooky enough times can mean a misdemeanor and/or steep fines.
The Challenge recruiter that sold Nancy and her son on the Challenge Academy’s merits was a pastor whose own son was turned around. There was never any mention that their quarters in Sheffield would be a former juvenile hall or that some classmates would carry rap sheets.
“He was finding out all these other kids were in jail and they were court ordered there,” Nancy said. “They thought we as parents wouldn’t know that their kids would be mingling with some who have no reason to care about life.”
The fact that the school inspired cadets to go against each other was disturbing.
“They’re teaching them these damn songs while they’re doing PT,” Nancy said, referring to physical training.
Chris was ready for the rigors of physical and mental conditioning. But the fact that it was compulsory to chant these capricious taunts left him vexed.
Chris remembered one cadence to provoke Bravo from its opening lines.
“Hey, Bravo! Hey, Hey Bravo!
Look out your window. Look out your window.
Here comes Alpha! Here comes Alpha!”
Other songs were more explicit.
“One of them is about the helicopter coming to get the wounded and forget about the dead,” Chris said. “That’s some shit! I’m like, What?”
Asked about the taunting cadences between Alpha and Bravo Lt. Col. Walters said that cadets are divided into those platoons to “facilitate… friendly and healthy competition.” And while there are some rivalries that flare up, he said none of them are “unhealthy or unfriendly.”
Passing the screening process meant putting on a good face in front of the school’s director. Chris says he only started thinking twice once he was already a numbered cadet.
Each question its program director Michael Weir, a retired Marine Corps first sergeant, threw at him during their hour together was read from a booklet.
“Every do any drugs?”
Chris admitted experimenting with weed.
“Was it a court order for you to come here?”
No, he applied willingly.
“Are you homosexual?”
Chris replied, “I’m straight, man.”
“You ever get in any fights?”
“I told him ‘I actually been in a lot of fights.’”
Weir pressed him.
“He asked me, ‘So like when you get mad you just want to fight?’”
Chris said, “I told him, ‘No, it doesn’t happen like that. I just grew up in a way that you never let anybody disrespect you.’”
Then Weir laid down the law.
“You fight here you’re going to get kicked out,” Chris remembered the director saying.
Yet, Chris says, fights were an everyday occurrence and the staff in charge almost never intervened.
“They got caught but nobody got sent home,” Chris said. “The sergeants sometimes broke the fights up and then they took them to a whole other side to isolate them.
“They was back within a couple days.”
These bouts were almost as frequent as escape attempts.
Bravos were especially prone to going AWOL.
“You hear everything that happens on the walkie talkie, every morning we hear, ‘We got a runner. We got another one.’”
The staff routinely sent out personnel they nicknamed “coyotes” to nab the “runners.”
Lt. Col. Walters maintained that since the Challenge Academy is “not a lockdown facility” nobody is forced against their will to stay there. But he admitted that some “do leave campus, in an attempt to act out.”
It took only a few days before Chris himself almost uncontrollably espoused the Alpha vs. Bravo mentality.
A Bravo cadet once tested Chris and his friend saying, “I heard all them Alpha niggas is bitches.”
“I told him, ‘Oh yeah, who I look like? Not one of them Bravo dudes, because Bravo always running.’”
Becoming a true Alpha and breeding the vitriol didn’t stop Chris from eyeing the exits.
He would write his mother two tearful letters.
“The first night we got there I wrote a letter to my mom,” Chris said. “I don’t remember word for word but I wish she would have got it.
“I wrote her saying, ‘This is the hardest thing I’ve done. I can see that already I’m going to have a tough time in here. I want to get done with school so I’m telling myself I got to keep going through with it.’”
Both Chris and his mother Nancy contend the letters never arrived.
“I don’t know why it wasn’t sent through,” Chris said.
Nancy remains suspicious as to why the snail mail failed.
“I asked the director [Weir], ‘Where’s my son’s letters that he sent me?’
And she says he blamed it on the postal service.
“If I had read them damn letters I would have turned around and gone back and got him.”
Instead, Chris soldiered on.
At around lunch time on July 22, Chris said another mini-riot broke out in the field area between Alpha and Bravo.
Then the platoons split up, and Bravo was sent in for chow while Alpha platoon stood in formation.
Chris said one outspoken cadet nicknamed Newport (the name stuck after his failed escape attempt to get cigarettes) began mouthing off to a female sergeant.
Chris made pleas for Newport to calm him down, but he “got mad” and “threw his canteen at her.”
It missed by a nose.
“I went up to him and I said, ‘Bruh, what is wrong with you? That’s a woman. How would you like it if someone threw something at your mama or your sister or something? Is you dumb?’”
The shouting match incensed Newport who raised his fists and charged Chris.
“I told everybody in that school—they know I’m nothing to play with,” he said. “So he comes at me with his hands up like ready to fight and I hit him in his cheek.”
The defensive blow forced Newport backward.
“He didn’t go down and he still kept coming toward me.”
After striking Newport “four or five times” Chris said out of nowhere he felt a “huge boom” on his left cheek.
“I just got hit,” he said. “At first I didn’t know who did it or what. I just remember I got hit and I fell and my mouth split.”
As he came to, Chris saw that a cool acting cadet standing a few paces away was the sucker puncher who “swung his filled canteen at close range.”
“He’s just standing to the side acting like he had nothing to do with it,” Chris said.
Newport ended up running away as Chris’s severed jaw gushed.
“My mouth was full of blood. It was like water. I had to spit it all out,” he said. “Bottom of my mouth it looked like a tooth was missing.”
Bleeding profusely, Chris said a couple adults paused to ask if he was alright, then kept walking.
Chris managed to convince one sergeant to let him see the nurse, but she was out to lunch so he waited “for two hours,” he said.
Once she arrived, the nurse retrieved saltwater for Chris to rinse his mouth.
After being released from the hospital Chris returned to the campus where he said the director allegedly told him, casually, “This isn’t the first broken jaw we’ve had.”
Since then Chris has been learning how to eat soft foods again following three surgeries on his jaw.
On the day her son was allegedly ambushed, Weir emailed parents a letter that said there was “an unfortunate incident” involving “one of our Team Leaders” who attacked “a candidate (student).”
Weir stated that he was compiling a report after interviewing witnesses and would submit the findings to the Texas Military Department, made up of three military branches including the Texas Army, Air and State Guard forces.
He added, “The side effect of this situation is that multiple candidates are [sic] requesting to drop from the program.”
The letter promised to give cadets phone sessions with the parents; and he pleaded for them to convince their sons “to continue to work the program” and not drop out.
When reached by The Daily Beast Director Weir said he “passed all the information in this case” up the chain of command but couldn’t answer any questions about what happened to Chris.
Despite supplying 75 percent of Challenge Academy funding, a Department of Defense rep refused to answer questions posed by The Daily Beast citing that the program is “managed at the state level” and instead deferred all questions to the Texas Military Department.
School administrators apparently waited a full day before ringing authorities.
“They called us on the 23rd and the incident happened on the 22nd,” Sgt. Tulon Murphy, of the Pecos County Sheriff’s Office, said.
The sergeant says his law enforcement agency routinely works various crime scenes at the military school ever since it was converted from a juvenile detention facility back in 2008.
“I think the kids get into fights and all sorts of stuff,” Sgt. Murphy told us. “We get called frequently there.”
Sgt. Murphy read off from the report that “there was a fight going on” and Chris “went to help and that’s when he was attacked.
“That’s how this happened.”
Chris’s uncle wonders why the school stalled to contact authorities.
“When you break somebody’s jaw or fracture a face police should be involved right away,” the 55-year-old man, who requested anonymity said. “They should have been talking to him, with police present and asking him ‘Do you want to bring charges against this individual?’
“That wasn’t the case and it was weird.”
Assistant District Attorney Bill Parham said there’s an outstanding warrant for the suspect, but because of short staff and case backlog the assault against Chris won’t be presented to a grand jury until January or possibly February of next year.
“As far as our office goes we have numerous cases that are pending and going through and we have a little bit of a backup,” he said. “We have been very shorthanded. That’s not an excuse that’s just a fact.”
As she waits on Lady Justice, Chris’s mother Nancy says her son “is not the same boy I dropped off that day in the summer.”
“This was supposed to be a success story and it turned into a damn disaster,” she said, choking back tears.
She mentioned how Chris’s best friend since he was 4-years-old enrolled at the same time but in another Challenge Academy on a Georgia military base. He joined because Chris did.
Now Chris’s friend is about to graduate and will enter the Navy.
“They signed up at the same time and left at the same time,” Nancy said. “But he went to a military base and my son went to a prison.”